DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Velvet Goldmine

Sunday 18 December 2011

Velvet Goldmine

Velvet Goldmine (1997) dir. Todd Haynes
Starring: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, Eddie Izzard, Toni Collette


By Alan Bacchus

Velvet Goldmine was a perceived failure in its day, but it’s a film that showed up on a lot of critics' Best of the Decade lists at the end of the ‘90s. Even I was dumbfounded by the preposterous indulgences of Haynes' love letter to glam rock. The mixture of fantasy and realism under the New Queer Cinema banner had me scratching my head. But there's much to admire in Haynes' ambitiousness and ability to recreate the feeling and tone of those ‘70s rock operas, all with a strong emotional character-based anchor.

The opening moments signal the epic-like ambition of Haynes – a scene set in the 1800s, visiting the gay author Oscar Wilde, who we're told was dropped from a UFO at birth, and in his childhood yearns to be a pop star. The reincarnated pop star we're meant to think he became is Brian Slade (Meyers), who in his youth grew up idolizing an out-of-control Iggy Pop-like rocker, Curt Wild (McGregor).

An audition with a star-making producer (Izzard) leads Slade to create a Ziggy Stardust-like alter ego through which to channel his audacious and overt bisexuality and hardcore lifestyle. The rocky journey of Slade and Wild are chronicled via a not-so-disguised Citizen Kane narrative set in 1984 featuring another fame-chaser, a smitten reporter (Bale) who investigated the rumoured fake-death of Slade years prior.

A strong theme of fame and obsession fuels Haynes' wild stylistic flourishes, which attempt to put us in a grandiose rock opera world like Quadrophenia and Phantom of the Paradise. That said, other than the trippy UFO/Oscar Wilde opening, most of everything we see on screen could have actually happened.

Haynes' loose narrative consists of short set pieces and montage scenes that hopscotch us through the ‘70s at a sharp pace, an energy which Haynes remarkably keeps up for almost two hours. Without a semblance of traditional movie coverage, everything we see on screen is a stimulus brimming with life. And great period music, both real and fake, merges perfectly to create visual and audio harmony.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' androgynous features and palpable screen presence should have been a star-making performance. Unfortunately, the failure of the film prevented this. Eddie Izzard's bombastic performance as the manager steals scenes, but it's Christian Bale we notice above all others. He could have blended into the background of the 'traditional' segments of the picture, but his aching internalized desires to be like Slade or Wild and inhabit their worlds carry more emotional weight than anything else. At the end, we get the film's most infamous scene – anal sex with Ewan McGregor on a rooftop. It's tastefully done, and we don't see much, but I think even the most bigoted homophobes might shed a tear for Bale's character, who in the most transcendental manner achieves his dream.

Looking back, Velvet Goldmine works so well because it takes the best of those ‘70s rock operas (none of them great films anyways), keeps the good stuff, throws out the bad and infuses itself with hopeful and passionate nostalgia.

Velvet Goldmine is available on Blu-ray from Alliance Films in Canada.

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